Monday, September 26, 2016

Travel and shipping on the Great Lakes

For longer than people have been recording Great Lakes history, men, women and children have paddled, sailed, steamed, and motored over Lake Erie, Lake

Great Lakes Art
Ontario, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior.

Chippewa, Cree, Mesquakie/Fox, Huron, Iroquois, Menominee, Ottawa, Potawatomi and Dakota/Sioux were some of the Native American Indians who lived in the Great Lakes regions. These Indian nations used canoes to fish, travel and migrate from one area to another. The Lakes were a source of livelihood to ancient indigenous tribes.

Though highly disputed, evidence that Norsemen longboats traveled and possibly camped along the shores of the Great Lakes was “discovered” in the 1930’s. The Beardmore Relics are Viking Age artifacts, supposedly found near Beardmore, Ontario, Canada. 

The Beardmore Relics

The objects consist of an ax head, a Viking Age sword, and a bar that could have been part of a Viking shield. While the legitimacy of the fragments is not usually argued, the "discovery" is commonly considered to be a hoax. Did Viking longboats travel around the Great Lakes? That’s yet to be proven, but hey, Vikings were explorers and conquerors, so why wouldn’t they?

By the early Seventeenth Century, European explorers were traveling on Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior in canoes and boats powered by sails
Lake Huron
or paddles. We know French explorers were more aggressive in their pursuit to map and explore the shoreline due in part to cartography. A British map published in 1626 showed no sign of the Great Lakes existence, and though more accurate maps were available in 1701, at least one British map issued was drawn showing with a single large lake at the end of the St. Lawrence River. In comparison, as early as 1650, the Frenchman Nicolas Sanson d'Abbeville had documented all five Great Lakes. Though not accurate, especially Lakes Erie, Ontario, and Superior, all of the Great Lakes were accounted for.

During the late 1700’s and all through the 1800’s, as more Americans moved west, shipping on the Great Lakes became increasingly important to the growth of our new nation’s economy. During this time barges, sloops, brigantines, schooners, and clippers traversed the freshwater of the Great Lakes. After the War of 1812, schooners were the chief vessels on the Lakes. Most of the merchant ships between 1800 and 1830 were 100 tons register, approximately 70 foot long, two-masted schooners. These ships could carry about 150 tons or 1,500 barrels of cargo. A crew of three or four men could run the schooner. Brigantines became popular in the 1830's and 1840's. Crews of eight to ten

people were required, and the ships were not as maneuverable as schooners. After 1850 few brigs or brigantines were built mostly because they were too expensive. The most useful and lucrative rig was the topsail schooner, intended for quick trips with heavy cargo the ship had excellent maneuverability and required a limited crew.

Today, shipping on the Great Lakes is still going strong. We visited Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan this summer and saw two massive freighters in the few hours we were there. Alpena, Michigan has recently expanded a cruise ship line that travels the Great Lakes. Everyday, pleasure boats and fishing vessels travel the lake shores and beyond.

The Great Lakes’ long history of shipping doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.


Award winning author, Michele Morris’s love for historical fiction began when she first read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series. She grew up riding horses and spending her free time in the woods of mid-Michigan dreaming of days-gone-by and knights-in-shining-armor. Therefore, it only makes sense that she now writes historical romance with a touch of suspense. Married to her high school sweetheart, they are living happily-ever-after with their six children, three in-loves, and six grandchildren in Florida, the sunshine state. When not spending time with her large brood or writing, Michele enjoys photography, genealogy, and cooking. 


  1. Thanks for sharing. I've never been to the Great Lakes before, but would love to some day.

  2. Thanks for stopping by HHH today. The Great Lakes are beautiful! The further north you go, the more majestic the scenery. (In my opinion) Thank you for comment and have a wonderful day!

  3. I would love to visit the Great Lakes some day. Thank you for sharing and the pictures.

    1. Thank you, Marilyn! The Lakes are well worth the trip. :) Especially, Traverse City area and the Upper Peninsula. God's country!
      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Great pictures of the I am hoping to see them someday.

    1. Thank you, Connie! The great Lakes really are so pretty, cold, but beautiful! Thank you for stopping in to HHH!